Give Forests to Local People to Preserve Them

Fred Pearce from New Scientist…Here’s the link.

The best way to protect rainforests is to keep people out, right? Absolutely not. The best way to keep the trees, and prevent the carbon in them from entering the atmosphere, is by letting people into the forests: local people with the legal right to control what happens there.

Given the chance, most communities protect rather than plunder their forests, says a new study by the World Resources Institute and Rights and Resources Initiative, both in Washington DC. The forests provide food, water, shelter, medicines and much else.

The report, Securing Rights, Combating Climate Change collates many existing studies. It concludes that forest communities only have legal control over one-eighth of the world’s forests. The rest is mostly controlled by governments or leased for logging or mining, often in defiance of community claims.

But community-owned forests are often the best-protected. In the Amazon rainforest, deforestation rates in community-owned areas are far lower than outside.
Hand it over

Since 2000, annual deforestation rates in Brazil have been 7 per cent outside indigenous territories, but only 0.6 per cent inside. The report estimates that indigenous territories in the Brazilian Amazon could prevent the emission of 12 billion tonnes of CO2 between now and 2050.

Brazil’s indigenous territories are an important reason why deforestation rates there have fallen by two-thirds in the past decade. The country is a leader in handing over forests to local people, having recognised some 300 indigenous territories since 1980. Almost a third of all community forests are in Brazil.

Likewise, in Guatemala’s Peten region, which includes the Maya Biosphere Reserve, deforestation is 20 times lower in community areas than those under government protection. In Mexico’s Yucatán state, deforestation is 350 times lower in community forests.

“We can increase carbon sequestration simply by transferring ownership of forests from governments to communities,” says Ashwini Chhatre of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who was not involved in the report. He led a 2009 study that reached similar conclusions (PNAS, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0905308106).
Not happening yet

However, global progress on recognising community claims has slowed since 2008. Governments, especially in Asia and Africa, are reluctant to give up control. In Indonesia, which recently overtook Brazil as the country that is deforesting fastest, the report found that only 1 million of its 42 million hectares of forests are formally under the control of their inhabitants.

“No one has a stronger interest in the health of forests than the communities that depend on them for their livelihoods and culture,” says Andy White of the Rights and Resources Initiative. “It is tragic that this has not yet been fully adopted as a climate change mitigation strategy.”

That could change. This year’s round of international climate negotiations will be in Lima, Peru, near the Amazon. Agreeing how to protect forests and the carbon they contain will be a central focus. “Strengthening community forest rights is critical to mitigating climate change,” says Jennifer Morgan of the World Resources Institute.

17 thoughts on “Give Forests to Local People to Preserve Them”

  1. Interesting article, thanks. But “community forests” shouldn’t necessarily be equated with “local people”, the study is referencing something more specific: “Community forests are lands held collectively by either rural or indigenous communities based on a shared history, language, culture, or lineage. In contrast to individual private property, most community forest lands are governed by customary rights, rules, and institutions that pre-date most modern governments, and continue to adapt to changing circumstances.”

    Do we even have community forests in the U.S.? I suppose tribal lands would fit the definition technically. Are there examples where deforestation is going on in the U.S., that would be slowed by making public or private lands into “community forests”? Because slowing the rate of global deforestation is the theme of this study. I hope this wouldn’t be considered comparable in any way to, say, the state of Idaho’s efforts to gain “local control” of federal forest lands, or to giving (local) counties control of national forest lands within their boundaries… regardless of the merits (or lack thereof) of such proposals, it’s apples and oranges with respect to this WRI study.

  2. In the context of this article, “community forests” are a means to implement Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto’s thesis that a legal system of recorded property rights is fundamental to a country’s economic advancement. What the community forest advocates seek is institutionalized legal recognition of forest property owned by cognizable groups of people, e.g., tribes. De Soto argues that people in developing countries are unable to put their property to economic use, such as to borrow money, sell assets, or expand their enterprises because their governments have not established a system of legally enforceable property rights.

    In the absence of a system of private property ownership, corrupt governments fill the vacuum by issuing “rights” to exploit natural resources to absentee corporations and other plutocrats who have the clout necessary to lubricate bureaucratic and political corruption.

    Smart environmentalists (an oxymoron?) know that private property ownership is foundational to conservation (i.e., sustainable exploitation) and preservation (i.e., non-exploitative purposes). They also know that economic advancement and prosperity are prerequisites to environmental protection, including arresting the emission of greenhouse gases.

    Sometimes advocates have to gussy up their objectives in the language of their own tribe, for example, calling it a “community forest” instead of “private property” in order to make their case. One hopes the sloppy language doesn’t get in the way of implementing the necessary legal reforms.

  3. Guy, I respectfully disagree that they are apples and oranges.. I think you either trust elected governments and local people to manage their business or you don’t. You can argue that federal ownership makes it everyone’s business (like my SES friend at a regulatory agency, “a person in NYC has as much right to determine what goes on on the GMUG as the residents of Delta”), but that is based on the idea of property rights. At least it seems to me. But if Shell bought a bunch of land in country x and was producing oil and gas against the wishes of the local tribes, we would sympathize with the tribes, no?

    It seems to me that it’s fundamentally about what you believe about people, elected officials and property rights. That’s why people like Ron Roizen refer to the “King’s Forest” historical example. Because that’s what it can feel like and does to some county governments.

    In fact, an interesting variant of this is playing out with oil and gas development in Colorado, where some local governments strongly feel that they have the right to determine what happens within their boundaries, and are actually fighting with the State on this topic.

    I do believe that if it weren’t for partisan politics, we could listen more carefully (with the ears of the heart) to everyone’s concerns. For example, Hick tried to broker a deal, but who wants to deal when you can arouse people with partisan battleflags?

    And there are things called “community forests” in the US. there is the S&PF Forest Service program from the 2008 Farm Bill.

    Community Forest Program

    The Community Forest Program (CFP) protects forests that are important for people and the places they call home. Community forests provide many benefits such as places to recreate and enjoy nature; they protect habitat, water quality and other environmental benefits, and they can provide economic benefits through timber resources. Community Forests have also long been sites for environmental and cultural education.

    Program basics:

    Full fee title acquisition is required. Conservation easements are not eligible.
    Community Forests can be owned by local governments, Tribal Governments, and qualified nonprofit entities.
    The program pays up to 50% of the project costs and requires a 50% non-federal match
    Public access is required for CFP projects
    The community is involved in the establishment of the community forest and long-term management decisions.

    It’s interesting that only one of the 2014 grantees is in the interior west…

    Here’s another organization working with Community Forests…

    • I think you either trust elected governments and local people to manage their business or you don’t. You can argue that federal ownership makes it everyone’s business (like my SES friend at a regulatory agency, “a person in NYC has as much right to determine what goes on on the GMUG as the residents of Delta”), but that is based on the idea of property rights. At least it seems to me. But if Shell bought a bunch of land in country x and was producing oil and gas against the wishes of the local tribes, we would sympathize with the tribes, no?

      Couple of thoughts on Sharon’s words above.

      It is because “trust” is such a weak foundation for public policy and the proper functioning of economic markets that we have “laws.”

      “Federal ownership” does not make management of federal property “everyone’s” business. That’s why there are federal agencies, e.g., the Forest Service, whose “business” it is to manage federal property. Note, however, that federal agencies are not unconstrained free agents (as is none of us); their behavior is controlled by laws.

      “If Shell bought land . . . against the wishes of the local tribes, we would sympathize with the tribes, no?” Yes, if the tribes’ property was stolen by a corrupt government that “granted,” “leased” or otherwise transferred the tribes’ property against its wishes. It is the lack of clear, enforceable property ownership combined with government corruption that distinguishes much of the developing world from the U.S. and western Europe. It is hard for a first world’er to imagine social systems in which you are unable to own your home sufficiently to borrow against it to raise capital to start your own small business. But that’s the way it is in much of the world. Property that isn’t owned is easily stolen by those more powerful, especially when the powerful do so under color of government.

      • Andy, I think I hear you saying that it’s a function of how it was transferred and how legitimate and/or corrupt the transfer was. But that’s left to the historians. Now based on some of the testimony that Ron Roizen found, there was a promise made at the time of transfer that the communities could continue to develop those resources. Since then laws have come about that have been interpreted by some as not allowing that. It’s that tension that I’m talking about, promises made and broken by government. With an agenda consciously driven by NGOs from outside the area (generally).

        • Thanks for the pointer to Ron’s blog.

          I am a bit confused about why you call establishment of the national forests a “transfer.” Almost all of these lands were purchased by the federal government from another colonial power, e.g., Louisiana Purchase. Only the Weeks Act lands (today’s eastern national forests) were ever owned privately and these lands were sold to the federal government by willing sellers. The counties never owned any federal lands. Nor could counties ever tax them, except for the Weeks Act purchases and those consisted primarily of lands whose owners weren’t paying the taxes due anyway.

          • When “moving the acres into national forests” happened…was when Pinchot provided that testimony. Transfer may have been the wrong word, but maybe “designation”… my point was that many western folks were not happy about the idea. Hence Pinchot’s assertions or promises.

            • Pinchot’s “promises” have no weight, then or now, as it is Congress that determines the law of the federal lands: “The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States…” U.S. Constitution, Art IV, Sec. 3, Clause 2.

              • AndyS

                Re: “Pinchot’s “promises” have no weight” – SO TRUE – Kind of like “If you like your doctor …”

    • That Alvord Lake parcel in Montana was never NFS land. It went up on the block a few years ago, the neighbors bought it and have been fishing around for some way to get it off their hands without having it turn into a subdivision.
      So now, with the grant, a donation (writable as charitable of course) and Vital Ground, the land is off the market. The surrounding landowners will of course benefit through an increase in the value of their properties when they sell, of course.

  4. OK, I suppose for the sake of argument you could take the “Not without a fight!” folks, assign them some cultural identity (maybe they have one already), privatize the Panhandle NF lands in Shoshone County and transfer title to that group, and go from there. Though I don’t think any of the “community forests” (same name, but really a different concept) in the U.S. have involved acquisition of NF lands… maybe next Farm Bill, now that we’ve eliminated a bunch of pesky environmental regulations…

  5. “That’s why there are federal agencies, e.g., the Forest Service, whose “business” it is to manage federal property. Note, however, that federal agencies are not unconstrained free agents (as is none of us); their behavior is controlled by laws.”

    It is too bad that the “laws” are such a jumbled mess and that our political leaders are too gutless to lead. Their job is to set policy that reflects the wishes of the American citizenry and then let the agencies implement that policy. They are incapable of doing that! Today, federal forests are managed by whoever yells and screams the loudest and does the best job of litigating! In the US, the idea of a community forest at the federal level has degenerated into a utopian pipe dream.

  6. Federal ownership is now burdened with so much legal process and will o’the wisp legal language that management has become impossible. With no other visible reason to exist except as preservation objects, Congress won’t budget to manage at any but a minimal level. When you have a single, non economic use, the Federal forests become baggage in storage. No impetus to fund them because, after all, they are being warehoused, left alone, and how much can you spend leaving something be?

    Oregon has found out. That state has a formerly 92,000 acre forest created by trading un-surveyed sections inside townships owned by the USFS that ceased to need surveying for entry when they were put into National Forest status. But sec. 16 and 36 were still deeded to Oregon, and so all those sections were traded into one block, the Elliott State Forest. Secs. 16 and 36 were designated “school” sections at Statehood. So the State Land Board (Gov, Sec of State and State Treasurer) is the management authority. Their mission is create money to put into the Common School Fund, from which only earnings and interest can be used to further education in the State. The principal cannot be used.

    So the best intentions, to have a sustained yield forestry program that will grow the Common School Fund forever, by cutting and growing trees, has been completely foiled by the zealots of the commons, and no logging is allowed to protect marbled murrelets, NSOwls, and whatever other charismatic critters can be found to stop any logging. But the protection of those lands still has to happen, and the bill is $3 million dollars and there is no way to tap the Common School Fund, so they have been using the earnings off other CSF lands and earnings from the Fund to pay the Oregon Dept of Forestry for management. And that money is NOT going to further education. The proverbial rock and hard place conundrum. Government for government by government still has to have revenue. And the answer is to sell the goose that was laying golden eggs, selling it for a song, and that act of abject stupidity is the logical and sure end to most actions of preservation. Burned wilderness and burned working forests unable to sell or create fuel reductions by management, because there is such a maze of legal and administrative hurdles that Federal Lands have become Stein’s Oakland: “You can’t get there from here.” Only in this case, the lands are being sold piecemeal, from the outer perimeter. That way access is available. Selling interior pieces could result in no access by some legal or administrative action.

    Don’t believe for a moment that is not the fate of Federal lands down the road. The minions of government for government by government, and this Administration is that in HDTV, daily, will get its sustenance from any or all means available, including selling Federal assets as long as they maintain control over the new owners. It wasn’t long ago that the Rockefeller family owned 7 of the National Park concessions and each was served by a railroad. Government can find friends with money, has found them, and will continue to find them. Symbiosis for the “common good.” Laughable, but fact.

    A local wag at the coffee shop noted that the Border Patrol cannot tell you when they had to prevent some illegal alien from crossing into Mexico. He also noted that he had yet to see a Wilderness Society fire fighting team. I chimed in that TNC is non-profit, and has as much as $10 Billion in annual rents, royalties and sales revenue. Which explains how Paulson went from TNC to Treasury to Goldman Sachs. He is a Willie Sutton like character: he follows money!!

  7. I can imagine giving the locals more access to our public forest resources. We really aren’t that much different than other forest communities in other parts of the world who have their resources controlled by governments or corporations from else where. We generally have a common culture, like tribes, and a connection to the land.
    It is especially needed now as the consolidated private forests land continue to be sold to management companies for investors who are only interested in profits and not the land or the communities.
    There is very little question in my mind that better decisions could be made on the local level concerning forest health and how to create a sustainable economy from their resources.
    Our forest lands continue to be exploited by the large corporate forest investors.
    Our public forests resources are wasted by the large and out of touch bureaucracies of our public forest managers.
    If the local interests were allowed to truly have input on direct the management of local public forests lands I think people would be surprised at how conservative and well these lands would be managed and at the same time able to create a much larger economy then they are currently.


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